By PAUL ANDERSON
City News Service
With a defense attorney pressing claims of misconduct by prosecutors, a judge said today he was considering separating the two phases of trial of a man accused of carrying out the worst mass killing in Orange County history.
Scott Evans Dekraai, 44, is accused of killing eight people -- including his ex-wife -- at the Salon Meritage beauty shop in Seal Beach on Oct. 12, 2011.
His public defender, Scott Sanders, has accused prosecutors of misconduct, citing what he calls an improper use of jailhouse informants by the Sheriff's Department to collect evidence against Dekraai and multiple other defendants. Sanders filed a motion last week asking that the Orange County District Attorney's Office be taken off the case and have the prosecution turned over to the state Attorney General's Office. He also wants to eliminate the possibility of the death penalty for Dekraai.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, who is prosecuting Dekraai, earlier this month said a 505-page motion from Sanders was "filled with untruths."
During a court hearing today, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he was considering a rare separation of Dekraai's trial -- holding one phase to determine if he is guilty, and if he is convicted, sorting through the misconduct allegations before seating a second jury for the penalty phase, during which jurors recommend whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the chance of parole.
Sanders reiterated in court today that Dekraai was willing to plead guilty to the crimes if the death penalty is taken off the table.
Sanders, who represents Dekraai, is also trying to convince another judge to dismiss the death penalty against his other client, Daniel Patrick Wozniak, who is accused of killing two people and dismembering one of his victims.
Sanders alleges that the Orange County Sheriff's Department is improperly using jailhouse informants to collect evidence against Dekraai, Wozniak and multiple other defendants, most of whom were charged in federal and state crackdowns on in-custody violence allegedly spearheaded by the Mexican Mafia.
The crackdowns -- nicknamed Operation Black Flag and Operation Smokin' Aces -- have resulted in several convictions, but Sanders argues in his recusal motion that they ought to be re-visited in light of the allegations regarding jailhouse informants.
The first Operation Smokin' Aces trial was due to begin earlier this month, but was delayed due to an allegation that a prosecutor withheld evidence from defense attorneys. Goethals has tentatively ruled that the prosecutor in the case, Deputy District Attorney Erik Petersen, may have to be replaced in the trial. A final ruling is expected March 14.
Petersen is one of the main figures in Sanders' recusal motion.
Sanders argues that one informant -- known as Inmate F -- was housed near Dekraai in a way to make it appear it was a coincidence and got the defendant to talk about the killings. Among some of the other more explosive allegations is that prosecutors did not file a case against one suspect in a gang homicide to hide alleged misconduct.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the chief of staff for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, downplayed the allegations.
"It's on the defense attorney checklist of things to do now. It's something that happens all the time," Schroeder said. "They'll lose, and we'll do the trial."